Changes to laws regarding where registered sex offenders can and cannot go take effect today. And that is expected to clarify things for local law enforcement as well as offenders.
“We’re glad the new laws take effect,” Assistant District Attorney Mark Miller said on Wednesday.
The previous law prohibited sex offenders from knowingly being on the premises of places used by children but not solely for that purpose.
But it didn’t specify exactly what that meant, and it applied to sex offenders who had never committed a crime against a minor.
While that was confusing enough for law enforcement and offenders, and outraged civil rights advocates for what was conceived to be an unconstitutional witch hunt, a Fourth Circuit Federal Court of Appeals ruling in April shot down portions of the existing law and “left a blank space,” Miller said.
“They closed a loophole to keep our children safer,” he said.
The new law more specifically addresses what kinds of places from which a registered sex offender is restricted and generally applies only to offenders who have committed crimes against a victim under 18 years of age.
“As a citizen, I like that,” said James Markham, UNC School of Governments professor who teaches judges, prosecutors and law enforcement on the subject.
“If I’m the sheriff or police, I can enforce that,” he said. “If I’m a sex offender, I know I can’t go there.”
In terms of place, most types of registered sex offenders are prohibited from knowingly being on the premises of any place intended primarily for the use, care, supervision of minors, such as schools and child care centers.
That provision remained unchanged in the new laws.
A provision that North Carolina trial courts and the federal Court of Appeals found problematic, which prohibited sex offenders from being at “any place where minors gather for regularly scheduled educational, recreational or social programs,” was rewritten.
The new law is reworded to prohibit registered offenders from any place where minors “frequently congregate.” Those include, but are not limited to, libraries, amusement parks, recreation parks and swimming pools.
The law also specifies that an registered offender’s presence at those places is unlawful only “when minors are present.”
A third, newly added provision specifically makes it illegal for sex offenders to be on the premises of the State Fairgrounds during the State Fair or on the Western North Carolina Agricultural Center during the North Carolina Mountain State Fair.
That provision also includes any other fairgrounds during an agricultural fair, which would apply to county fairs across the state.
In terms of “who,” those provisions apply to either registered sex offenders convicted of an Chapter 14 Article 7B crime in the general statutes, or for any offense committed against a victim 18 or under at the time of the offense.
These restrictions still cover the vast majority of convicted sex offenders, including those who have committed rape or sexual battery.
“It ends up being most,” said Markham.
“If the idea that limiting the law to that sub-category of offenders is important to its constitutionality,” he said, “it winds up not being much of a limitation.”
The Fourth Circuit also found constitutionally problematic a provision in the statute that makes it unlawful for a registered sex offender to be knowingly within 300 feet of any location intended primarily for the use of children but located on premises that are not intended primarily for the use of children.
Markham called this the “place within a place,” provision.
It includes situations such as a daycare center located in a strip mall or a fast food restaurant with a playground.
The new law leaves that provision the same, but narrows the scope so it applies to only those who have committed offenses with victims under 18 years of age.
“I think that one is really limiting,” Markham said.
For those who have committed an Article 7B offense with an adult victim to be covered by the 300-foot rule, a finding must have been made “in any civil or criminal proceeding that the person presents, or may present, a danger to minors under the age of 18.”
At this point, those findings aren’t likely to have been made.
“They didn’t know they had to,” Markham said.
Advocates against the added restrictions argue that the 300-foot rule unfairly impacts a registered offender who, for example, may otherwise already be lawfully working within 300 feet of those types of locations.
This restriction is unconstitutional, those advocates argue, particularly in the cases of those who have never committed a crime against a minor, or offenders who were minors themselves when the crime was committed.
The new law shouldn’t uproot anybody new, Miller said. “It should affect fewer.”
Detective James “Buck” Turner, who oversees the Surry County Sheriff’s Office sex offender registry, agreed.
“I think it’s just going to clarify the situation across the board,” he said. “It’s going to help us if we do have to charge someone.”
The sheriff’s office is tasked with keeping track of those offenders such as when they move into the county or change residences, their online activity as well as sporadic or routine compliance checks.
According to Turner, there are 121 offenders listed on the registry in Surry County, many of whom reach out to the sheriff’s office for guidance on how to stay compliant.
Citizen complaints lead to the majority of any violations that ensue and are helpful in tracking down offenders in certain circumstances.
“For the past three weeks, 80 to 85 percent of my workload has been sex-offender complaints,” Turner said.
One remaining variable is that the state appealed the Fourth Circuit’s ruling.
If they win that appeal, or if the higher court stays the Fourth Circuit ruling, these changes will revert back to the more broadly written one.
Markham said he’s been telling prosecutors and deputies to “keep an eye on the Fourth Circuit, or you won’t know which version to apply.”
Reach Terri Flagg at 415-4734.